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Latin percussionist discusses career, gives musical demonstration

Event part of CAHSS Diversity Dialogues series

Cookie Lopez made her mark in the music world, but the path was not without obstacles.

Hablar Conga

Lopez, a New York-born percussionist, recently visited NSU as part of the Diversity Dialogues series hosted by the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. The “Hablar Conga” presentation was also timed to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs each year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

Growing up in the Bronx, Lopez did not like playing the French horn and took to drums, over her musician father’s disapproval.

“There were a lot of years of proving myself,” Lopez said. “I had the urge to play and loved it so much.”

Despite her father’s opposition, Lopez stuck with percussion instruments and taught herself music by playing along with Cal Tjader records. Lopez got her break at age 15 when she became a guest performer on a popular show broadcast in Puerto Rico. Along the way, Lopez contended with sexism and the belief that a woman could not be a percussionist, but she was undeterred.

“I fought through it,” she said. “If it’s in your heart to do it, don’t stop.”

Over the course of several decades, Lopez has toured around the world and worked with artists like Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, Sarah Vaughan, Jaco Pastorius, Tito Puente, and Paquito de Rivera. And all without ever having learned how to read music.

Lopez gave demonstrations with her custom made drums and showed off an eclectic collection of accompanying instruments picked up everywhere from Walt Disney World to street markets in South America. The items varied from rain sticks to a necklace-like string of shells and goat hooves. After the presentation, attendees had the opportunity to play with Lopez in an informal jam session.

Department of Performing and Visual Arts Assistant Professor Jessica Muñiz-Collado, who suggested Lopez as a guest for Hispanic Heritage Month, has also struggled with the glass ceiling in her music career.

“I had the same struggle and constantly had to prove myself, but if I had stopped, I would’ve regretted it,” Muñiz-Collado said.

The presentation’s topic and the jam session were intended to combine several different disciplines, said Professor Michael Caldwell, who organizes the Diversity Dialogues events.

“It talks about Hispanic culture using the language of music,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said he was impressed by Lopez’s abilities and the length of her career.

“I’m amazed at her sense of self and her ability to create such an impressive career without reading music, but with experience, heart, and talent.”

The next Diversity Dialogues event, “For Race and Country: The Life and Career of Colonel Charles Young,” will take place from 12 to 1 p.m. Nov. 1 in the President’s Dining Hall at the Horvitz Building.

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